Chef Alex Perry is one of the most extraordinary chefs I know.
He is a local guy, but he started out wanting to be a biologist like his mother had been.
By his senior year at the university, however, he began to have doubts. He did finish his bachelor's degree in biology, but by then he had figured out what he wanted to do.
He wanted to be a chef.
He was then off to a Le Cordon Bleu culinary arts program, where he excelled. He graduated, with his white chef's jacket, eager to prove to the world what he could do.
He got on with a well-known Florida resort, where he washed dishes and wasn't allowed to pick up a knife for six months.
"That's the reality of the professional kitchen," he said. "There were 120 students in my class; just three are still in the industry today."
We are sitting at a large table in his Ocean Springs restaurant, Vestige, at 715 Washington Ave., several hours before service begins. His prep cooks are already hard at work, and every few minutes one appears with a spoon for tasting. Perry tastes, thinks hard for a minute, then says, "More salt; simmer it 10 minutes longer."
The cook disappears
into the kitchen, then pops back out, another spoon in hand, waiting for another judgment from the chef. The process goes on for every dish, every sauce and every side on the night's menu, which changes daily based on availability of local ingredients.
Perry cooks in a style he calls Modern American, which is the general style of what so many young chefs are doing today. It is a departure from the rigid French methods and Italian influences that are the basis for so much of the food cooked professionally in the United States today.
Perry discovered it when he got a copy of Super Chef Thomas Keller's book, "The French Laundry," and saw an episode on TV chef Anthony Bourdain's show about that now-famous restaurant.
"It changed my world," Perry said.
What Modern American translates into at Vestige is fresh, locally sourced ingredients, many bought from area farmers markets, and every ingredient in the kitchen is of the best possible quality.
Perry buys his pork from George County's Sand Ridge Farm, which was featured here a couple of weeks ago. Much of his produce comes from P&J Nursery, one of only two USDA-certified organic farms in Mississippi. His seafood is fresh and much of it is local.
"I can taste the difference in a fresh, organic carrot," he said. "It tastes like a carrot should: vibrant, delicious, not the cardboard you get from grocery store produce."
What goes on in his kitchen is nothing short of amazing.
"Nothing is easy for us," he says. "We take the time to do every task right, no shortcuts, ever!"
I spent some time at Vestige last year and was amazed to find that on some days, 24 hours of labor are expended before the restaurant doors open.
Perry uses an immersion circulator, which is a device for slow cooking that you will find in few local restaurants.
Most of Vestige's sauces are vegetable based, almost puree-like, but they are vibrant in color and flavor. The menu is petite but well-balanced.
Today, that menu includes grilled lamb ribs with green garlic jalapeno succotash, pork belly with a soy-grapefruit gastrique (a caramelized sugar), house-made orecchiette pasta and garlic cream with shrimp. And that is just a few of the small plates.
Everything in the kitchen is made from scratch: all the sauces, all the sides.
Perry and his front-of-the-house manager and wife, Kumi Perry, have also opened a new Japanese-inspired restaurant in Mobile, Saisho, and it is already a success.